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Sustainability in aviation has serious trust issues
While flying cannot be green today, airlines must highlight their sustainability efforts in ways that build brand trust.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby is exceptionally knowledgeable about airline sustainability. When I interviewed him on my podcast, Sustainability In The Air, he talked passionately about how we can’t plant enough trees to neutralise the industry’s emissions.
He doesn’t support carbon offsets and prefers measures like sustainable aviation fuel to reduce the airline’s environmental impact. Yet, till recently the United Airlines website offered offsetting options to customers. This disparity even made it to a segment of comedian John Oliver’s show.
This matters because such messaging in the absence of concrete action erodes brand equity instead of inspiring trust. As airlines take early steps towards a more sustainable future, this is essential.
Like former Star Alliance CEO Jeffrey Goh told me on the podcast, “We’re playing defence when it comes to communicating about sustainability.”
There are a few reasons for this:
The numbers don’t add up
I chaired a panel recently at the Dubai Arabian Travel Market (ATM) featuring executives from technology companies like Travelport, Amadeus and Booking.com. Each of them is developing their own carbon footprint calculator. The catch - each of them offers a different result!
While airlines have the most accurate emissions estimates of upcoming flights, to the best of my knowledge only United which displays them to passengers. As a result, most suppliers have to come up with datasets independently, which can be difficult.
One of the few sites that consistently displays carbon emissions is Google Flights. But even Google controversially changed its calculation recently to exclude non-CO2 emissions, reducing the figures by half overnight!
Such discrepancies do not inspire trust in customers. An airline hiding its emissions despite knowing them doesn’t build confidence. An online travel agency saying that its calculations are the most accurate versus those displayed for the same flights on competitor websites creates confusion, not trust.
Instant gratification: not included in aviation
After my panel in Dubai, I booked an Uber Green to get to my next meeting. Choosing this option guarantees that an emissions-free vehicle would pick me up. Sure enough, within minutes, I was being whisked quietly past skyscrapers in a white Tesla.
Similarly, when I see a bus in London with the label, “Runs on Hydrogen”, I know it does. While this sets traveller expectations across other modes of transport, such instant gratification is not yet possible in aviation.
I chose to offset a recent flight on British Airways by buying sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from their partner, Chooose. Most flyers would expect that the airline would put the SAF that they bought on their flight but that is not the case.
SAF is in short supply and not available at every airport. In fact, 80% of the global SAF supply is in California. This means British Airways could only use my funds to buy SAF on a future flight for someone else — and the airline couldn’t give me any details at the time of booking or during my flight. My proactive climate action required me to pay more for SAF than to check-in my bags, and I had no clue about when and how it would be used. I had to place blind faith in the airline.
It is the same case with Lufthansa’s Green Fares — a new “Green” fare product that can be purchased in addition to Economy and Business when booking a flight within Europe. The cost is typically twice as much as the cheapest Economy fare, but the airline doesn’t clarify exactly how and when the funds will be used. Moreover, flyers get bonus frequent flier miles by booking this fare, which, ironically, would ultimately be used to fly more and add to emissions.
How can one trust an airline to use the funds given to them judiciously if they’re not legally bound by it and the customer is not seeing instant results – like boarding an Uber Green?
In the past few months, the most proactive airlines taking sustainability action are also the ones who have suffered the most reputational damage. KLM, Lufthansa, Etihad and Delta Air Lines have all been targeted by climate activists or are facing lawsuits on how they communicate about their sustainability programs.
While climate activists sometimes use lawsuits to get prominence for their causes, airlines are partly to blame for this conundrum. Most communications have been done hastily — as one-word Facebook ads or single-sentence “crafted” headlines on billboards without much context.
Regulators and activists consider this greenwashing as it misleads customers into believing flying is green. While flying cannot be green today, airlines must highlight their sustainability efforts in ways that build brand trust through impassioned storytelling rather than taking the easy route of running social media ads.
While it is encouraging to see several airlines take proactive steps towards a greener future, it seems like the wild west to the untrained eye. There are multiple approaches to getting to net zero for aviation. But that shouldn’t confuse customers.
The airline industry must first recognise its problems in building trust around sustainability and then take concerted measures to inspire trust.
Sustainability in aviation is like safety — the entire ecosystem needs to work together to build confidence. Small steps, taken together, will yield results over time.
This article will appear in the Summer edition of FlightGlobal’s Airline Business magazine.